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ICT and Telecoms Technological Convergence in Zimbabwe – The Real Issues, Challenges, Threats and Way Forward

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I was recently at a function, also attended by Telecoms Engineers and one of the things that really struck me was how these guys really were spot on with what I previously thought to only exist in the “ICT Domain”. My surprise was short-lived though when someone formally introduced us and I realised that this was a team of fellow ICT Practitioners who had “migrated“ to Telecoms.

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Also, it then made even more sense when I remembered that some four or five years back, Cosmas Mahuni hinted in a presentation at a similar gathering that ICTs seem to be fast becoming integral to almost all Technical Fields, and has actually extended into more fields, more notably, Electronic Security,  GIS and Remote Sensing, just to name a few.

Now that that’s been said, I will go ahead and start.

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So for starters, let’s look at the basics. In general, convergence has sometimes been defined as the coming together of two or more distinct entities or phenomena to form another entity.  Now that such “Technological convergence” is increasingly prevalent in the Information  and communication Technology world;  in this context, the term refers to the combination of two or more different technologies in a single device, or on a single system.

What remains unique is the convergence of ICTs and Telecoms as well as their use of the same infrastructure and protocols. Traditionally, we had a scenario where Office Telecoms was ideally the use of the traditional and/or Legacy Private Branch eXchange, which was the switchboard, supported by Extensions and these were primarily analogue.

This is a case of the benefits both the telecoms and the consumer in that instead of running off the Data networks, they start to ride on the data carriers which means the consumer will benefit from the reduced costs of voice communications. As we move further into the Convergence, other ICT Software-Driven add-ins will also begin to apply – shared services, voicemails, and texts, emails alerts, Auto Attendances, etc. The changes in the Industry will result in the Shake-up of the whole industry, both on the Supply Side and in the internal dynamics of the Organisation, resulting in potentially massive impacts.

 

Business and Economic Implications of the Market shake-up

One direct result of this convergence is that the Network Carriers are now entering into the domain of Voice Communications, which is a diversification from their traditional market of Internet, email, VPN provision. However, the Infrastructure for these old services and the new voice market can be shared, and the diversification is basically a simple exercise.

That coupled with the low cost of VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol), the market will find it cheaper to communicate with such new technology. And as competition intensifies, the Data Network Carriers in Zimbabwe are moving fast into voice, giving very low rates such that the traditional Telephony market is now under considerable threat of extinction. Despite having upgraded to digital infrastructure, the “landline system” is reported to have lost up to 40% of its market share over the past two years to both the VoIP and the Mobile Phone Providers.

Added to that, the Voice carriers, who are new into the voice Communications Business, have not been able to fit into the “unwritten social contract” with the last mile service providers. As a result, this has led to a tug of war scenario between the players. This phenomenon has been attributed by some as the result of blurred definitions of parameters of service in the sector by the Regulator. It therefore has been proposed that there be upstream providers and last mile providers with no Player becoming a member of both groups.

However, it remains to be seen, just like in the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) Sector and Agricultural Sector, whether it is possible for the producer to also go all the way to Wholesaling and the retailing. it’s suffice to say, such unfortunate practices are visibly threatening the performance of the economy.

The entry of ICTs into the Telephony business will imply a shaking of an otherwise conservative market. It is noted that new players are coming in, and as State-Owned Telephone Service Provider Company feels the heat, it is now venturing into the “last mile” business, that is, provision of the terminal equipments like PABXs, PBXs and Handsets. This previously has been a domain of the Privately-Owned Telecoms Companies, who have been dependent on the Parastatal to provide the telephone lines infrastructure so that they, in turn, provide Last Mile services. As this happens, the private Sector players are left exposed, as they cannot fairly compete with the Parastatal.

There is therefore a need to revisit the Regulation of the sector to ensure fairness in competition among the players.

 

Human Resources and Social Issues:

As the two sectors tend to converge, there is the often ignored question of overstaffing and redundancy of Staff. While this is generally well taken care of under Zimbabwean Law, it cannot go without being mentioned that this will create a duplication of duties in many Large Corporates, and such duplication is often the root of conflict.

Let’s look at these human resources and social issues in more detail:

  1. The automation of the switchboard will create a redundancy in the Receptionist / Secretary, whose position is already under threat from the advent of emails and the more personalised cellular phone. If not managed properly, this will add to the already existing challenge of unemployment in the country, just the way the convergence of ICT and Security has given birth to Electronic Monitoring which in the process is creating a more cost-effective replacement of the Human Security Guard.
  2. The efficiency and cost-sharing potential in a multi-site setup will always present good savings for the Business, where they will not need to invest much, but only pay for services to a central call centre. However, as previously discussed, such efficiency will always have job causalities as Blue chip Organisations will always tend to have shared central phone receptions, cloud-sourced, even automated services in a bid to enhance efficiency, service and  to manage costs.
  3. The moving of the Telecoms to the ICT Department will create a scenario where the traditional Analogue Technicians will need to change the reporting department while their domain is slowly being phased out. Admittedly, as previously mentioned, we are in a “Transitional Phase”, where the analogue or Legacy Systems are slowly moving out. This situation is unique to Zimbabwe and other Developing economies, where early adoption of Technnologies is not always a feasible investment. We tend not to replace anything until it really breaks down completely!

 

Technical and Operational Issues:

In Zimbabwe, the key issue to discuss is the basic issue of practicality of this convergence. The moment we use our Data Networks for Telephony (Telecoms), we will realise a number of issues that will need to be addressed;

1. The capacity of the Data network.

One of the things that worry the Network Administrators is the capacity of our networks to carry the additional LOAD of the Telephony System. That given, we often run the risk of “Scaled Expansion” of the network which results in the addition of switches in an effort to have more ports on the network. The end result however, is often the poor running of the network which would be clogged with collisions.

2. There is always the gambit of risk management

This is where we have always enjoyed the comfort of knowing that when the Data Network fails, there is always the Telephone network. Now the Convergence, including the Convergence of the Electronic Security System as well, will present a “shared fate” setup, where the failure of the backbone network will result in a total breakdown of the Enterprise. This is the challenge of having all eggs in one basket.

3. Security Considerations

Like all new technologies, the use of Converged Infrastructure is a potential minefield in Zimbabwe since the risks associated with our data networks are all inherited into the Telecoms services. There is a new threat to voice communications of Phishing, Hacking and other nuisances that come in as new very dangerous and potentially catastrophic threats beyond the traditional tapping of phone wires. While the Government has upped its own game by setting up commendable Ministries of ICT and the newly established ministry of Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation, a lot is up to the citizens to ensure a safe Cyber-Zone in the country.

 

The Way Forward

While we look at this trend developing, it is an opportunity for Business in Zimbabwe to look beyond the mist and pave a way for more effective communications by harnessing the technologies and thinking way outside the box.

This Technological Convergence, like all modern day convergences, presents an opportunity to streamline operations and improve on efficiency, thus optimising on costs. Admittedly, there will be a lot of casualties in term of Jobs, Company Closures (if the Telecoms Firms don’t Diversify), Equipment becoming increasingly Obsolete (meaning lost investments), etc. The risk is also ever present that in the absence of the regulatory authority stepping in to regulate the Operations, Competition and the roles of the various classes of players, there is risk of monopoly, unfair trade practices and the further closing down of some Businesses in the Sector.

With all the good and bad said, this is the time for Technology Players and Stakeholders to engage and come up with solutions to ensure that Zimbabwe transitions smoothly, and minimises the Social and Economic losses as it embraces this ICT Revolution and joins the Global Village.

 

Steve Mupiwi is a renowned ICT Expert with over 10 years experience in Solutions Development and Infrastructure Management, having served in various ICT Innovation positions in Eastern and Southern Africa and South East Asia. He writes in his own capacity, and can be contacted on Whatsapp Number +263772704602 or email stephen@standardglobal.co.zw


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2 thoughts on “ICT and Telecoms Technological Convergence in Zimbabwe – The Real Issues, Challenges, Threats and Way Forward

  1. ”…the “landline system” is reported to have lost up to 40% of its market share over the past two years to both the VoIP and the Mobile Phone Providers…”

    If you are basing your analysis on using the above statement, then 100yrs later you will still be using the same statement.

    What is true is that the Telecoms core network is moving from the core and getting closer to the home user and business. There is nothing new there. Years ago, fibre used to be found only at the heart of Telecoms and ISP networks.
    Fast forward to today, fibre has grown out towards home user now you get all sorts of FTTx.

    Convergence is being hyped by new kids in town, ie, sales and marketing people, but its not new at all! There was time when Telco companies provided both internet and call services. The Telco company would give you a dial up modem, then you could have your internet and telephone from same Telco.

    What users didnt realise is that the core of ISP, there were trunk lines which carry both voice and data services. There was no separate lines for telephone calls and data, everything was converged and TDM technologies were used for smooth operations. Now the same technology is getting closer to the user, sales people wants to make it sound like its new!!

  2. This article seems to have been pulled from the annals of 2004. Most of the information in it is clearly outdated and the Zimbabwean “traditional” and “data” communications players are well entrenched in a converged framework. Your guest blogger is not the “expert” he seems to suggest because if he were, he would understand that most of the issues that he says are areas for conversation and consideration are now “water under the bridge”.

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